- Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe by Andrew O’Malley
A man ventures out into the world of trade to make his fortune. Far from home, his vessel wrecks, and he finds himself the sole survivor, cast away on a desert island. By chance, cargo from the vessel washes ashore, allowing the man to create a weak semblance of civilization. Otherwise, he must live by his wits and hope for rescue. Alone with his thoughts and imagination, the man must stave off insanity, loneliness, and despair. One day he gashes his hand and leaves a bloody imprint on a volleyball; using his fingers, he draws in eyes and a mouth. The ball becomes a human face. The man bequeaths the name “Wilson” to this new facade and creates a companion. He is no longer alone.
Thus the echo of Robinson Crusoe entered the twenty-first century with the late December 2000 release of the blockbuster film Cast Away. Daniel Defoe’s great novel, one of the imperishable texts of the early eighteenth century, persists in films, comics, and graphic novels. The castaway story has gone through numerous permutations and media transformations since Defoe’s tale was first published in 1719. Defoe’s work was itself a knock-off of a real shipwreck story, or a compilation of many such stories going back millennia. Before Odysseus and his men washed up from the sea, castaway stories entertained and thrilled audiences hungry for adventure. Robinson Crusoe is a distinctly modern protagonist, whose adventure has sent ripples across the centuries to the present. Indeed, Crusoe permutations show little sign of slowing down. The volleyball, Wilson, serves as one more cultural artifact in a long line of Crusoe-inflected materiality, and we can anticipate more in the future. In Crusoe, the legacies of high and low culture merge. Defoe’s novel is canonical, but from chapbooks to Gilligan’s Island the castaway story has dug itself deep into the collective unconscious.
This complex matrix of generative material provides the focus of Andrew O’Malley’s commendable study, the most satisfying analysis of the Crusoe myth to date. As O’Malley chronicles, [End Page 181] Defoe’s novel provoked commentary from the start. Literary giants like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Maria Edge-worth, Samuel Coleridge, and Virginia Woolf contributed significant insights into Crusoe’s power to engage readers’ and the larger culture’s imaginations. Modern scholarly analysis of Robinson Crusoe is equally distinguished, starting with Ian Watt, G. A. Starr, and Raymond Williams, followed by Martin Green, Paula Backscheider, and Pat Rogers, among others. Robinson Crusoe quickly became a formative influence on children’s literature, and O’Malley’s study acknowledges a plethora of scholars in this field. One of the noteworthy strengths of his book is the depth of primary and secondary texts he invokes to understand Crusoe, the idea of childhood, and larger popular culture. Crusoe is not simply a textual iteration; he has been featured in theater and puppet productions, in toy and game creations, and in street culture. That one can currently buy and download a video game called Adventures of Robinson Crusoe from Amazon.com, as well as a board game, tells us that Crusoe’s presence generates meaning—and profit—today. Globally, his tale inspires new material for play and education.
O’Malley acknowledges the many theories of the protagonist Crusoe, whose adventure has sparked a production of metaphor: economic man, spiritual man, existential man, and imperial man. Lacanian, postcolonial, gender, and neo-Marxist readings of Crusoe have all proved illuminating. O’Malley brings many perspectives into play because his central question is ambitious: “this study seeks to trace the history of Crusoe in children’s and popular culture, and tries to understand why the text was appropriated . . . into popular usage and called into service . . . for the improvement and entertainment of children” (4). The temporal scope of his study is nearly three hundred years, and his spatial and cultural reach is global. O’Malley adds considerable new insight into the Crusoe myth and challenges our received...